TEMPE — Dan Kush stood at the entrance of the church, welcoming family, fans and former players with a smile. Despite the passing of his father, longtime Arizona State football coach Frank Kush, the mood was a healing one as teammates reconnected, stories were exchanged and the icon’s life was celebrated.
“Somebody asked me earlier, ‘Well, Dan, you seem pretty up,’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of energy in the room,'” he said Wednesday at a public viewing at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center in Tempe.. “There’s a lot of people who have great memories of my dad and everybody’s smiling so it’s almost impossible not to be up.”
Kush came to ASU in 1955 as an assistant but took over as head coach two years later. From that promotion, the Kush legacy began and Arizona State soon found itself on a national stage.
“He was the No. 1 celebrity in the state. He was Elvis,” close friend Jeff Eger said. “Next to him was (children’s show host) Ladmo and next to him was the governor. Maybe somewhere in the middle was Jerry Colangelo.”
Kush was known, feared and respected. He was tough with players but still a leader with great influence.
“I called coach, ‘Daddy Kush’ because he was like a father to us,” said Steve Holden, a former three-time All-Western Athletic Conference wide receiver. “He gave us things to grow on, he gave us things to learn, and he gave us things not to do.”
The public viewing for Kush lasted four hours and a service was held at the midway mark. Former players flooded the church. The turnout for those honoring Kush was moving for those in attendance.
“It gives me chills when I think about it,” said former ASU and NFL cornerback Mike Haynes. “They named the field, ‘Kush Field.’ They had so many guys paying their own way to come back to thank Coach Kush. Not all those guys played for four years. Some of those guys were guys that he actually kicked off the team.”
Former linebacker Bob Breunig, who went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys for 10 years, remembered the first time he met Kush. Breunig went to school on the west side of Phoenix and he recalled Kush visiting him there.
“He was like a rock star. It was like the president walking in my lunchroom,” Breunig said. “The whole place went ‘Frank Kush’ and he walks over to my table. I don’t know how he knew who I was, but he did. I guess one of the coaches told him and he was like ‘Hi, Bob, I’m Frank Kush, Nice to meet you.'”
Breunig told the story with the same excitement as if it had happened yesterday. He told how Kush went to his home later that night to meet his parents. How he had his arm around him and the kindness he displayed.
But once Breunig and Kush took the field together for the first time it was all business.
“On that first night of practice, there were 50 or 60 of us over there,” Breunig said. “He’d been calling me Bobby the whole time and he turned and looked at me and he says, ‘Hey you, jackass’ and I said, ‘No I’m Bobby.'”
Breunig laughed after sharing the story.
Even as Kush battled dementia for several years, his players stayed in contact.
“I think the biggest challenge was seeing this guy that was like bigger than life, like John Wayne or Ronald Reagan, some of these people that you expect to always be there,” Dan Kush said. “You have this image that that’s who he is and he’s always going to be that way”
Many credit the growth of Tempe and the university to Kush.
“I think he really fell in love with the place and the place didn’t get the recognition he thought it deserved,” Dan Kush said. “He worked almost tirelessly in regards to help improving the university and it was Arizona State Teachers College at the time, but he went around lobbying to change it from the teachers college to the university.”
Players and coaches understood Kush’s level of expectations.
“You had to prove yourself to him if you could not execute,” former running back Prentice Williams said. “If you could not get your degree. If you didn’t want to study then you weren’t going to be here.”
Kush was one that did not take mistakes lightly. Mistakes range from falling short on a play to being late for practices. Consequences were to help players learn and mature. Examples included running “Kush Mountain” at Camp Tontozona or doing hamburger drills, which were required after someone made a mistake.
Eger believed Kush could maximize his players’ potential and teach them how to do things the right way. He was a perfectionist above all.
“Very strict, very passionate and very committed coach,” Eger said. “If he wasn’t going to get the best out of you (then) you weren’t going to be on his team. Frank did not coach losers.”
Eger had a scrapbook of photos and articles about Kush’s legacy at ASU. As he flipped through the pages, he shared numerous stories.
One of the photos showed him running with Kush two weeks after the coach had been fired from ASU. In the photo, Kush is still wearing his ASU hat.
“My dad said, ‘Don’t make a big deal about when I go. Just put me in the dumpster and roll me out to the curb on pickup day and don’t make a big to do about it,'” Danny Kush said.
With Kush leading ASU for 23 years, turning a program into a national power coaching 125 future NFL players, most would disagree.